Last week I wrote about the way in which we can carry Burning Man culture forward in a time of isolation by finding ways to turn our solitude into theme camps that can be shared. To the extent I learn anything about this process, I’ll be sharing it here.
The first two design elements I suggested — both for theme camps on the playa and at home — are Immediacy (don’t pretend to be having an experience that you’re not; start from where you are) and Radical Self-expression (not just for yourself, but for others: how do you invite others to be Radically Self-expressive while having this experience?).
Something I suggested last week, but feel is even more important now, is to not try to pretend we are creating an adequate substitute for in-person experiences through digital activities. We’re not. Some futurists have argued with me that eventually the digital environment will be able to wholly satisfy our physical needs…for presence, touch, and all the rest. I think that’s delusional, but we can both agree the digital can’t do it now.
Trying to replace what we’ve lost with digital and distance experiences will simply lead to less satisfying distance experiences. Trying to utilize the technological realm to its fullest, on its own terms, will lead to more satisfying, amazing, experiences. They’ll be different experiences. They won’t replace what we’ve lost, but they’ll be more extraordinary on their own terms. Again, let’s start with where we are, not with where we wish we could be.
For myself — and, of course, your experience will be your own — I’ve found there’s often a quick point of diminishing returns to virtual group hang-outs. I go in and get a rush of energy and satisfaction from seeing people I like and jumping into conversation, or even just lurking a bit while the familiar voices fill my living room. But often that experience passes fairy quickly, and the virtual hang-out starts taking away what it previously gave. Sometimes I’ve left them feeling more drained and isolated than I was when I came in, despite that initial feeling of euphoria.
Here are some of the most rewarding experiences among the interesting experiments I have seen or been a part of this past week — ones that did not cause that effect, had me engaged and happy all the way through, and feeling better afterwards.
I didn’t get to participate in this one, I only heard about it, but it’s such genius that I had to pass it on. A bartender, now out of work for obvious reasons, preserved her craft by opening a video conference “bar,” where she serves drinks by having the patrons show her (and everyone else there) around their liquor cabinets and kitchens, and then she instructs them on how to make a drink based on the materials they have. She talks them through it, has them adjust it to taste, and then listens to them share their problems as they drink. Then she goes on to the next person while other patrons talk or watch. A Venmo account is linked in the chat, so that people can tip if they are inclined.
This is genuinely participatory, genuinely expressive, sharing and communal, and looking around someone’s home can be quite intimate. It’s a fantastic model for the kind of experiences we’re trying to create.
Narrating Ordinary Experiences
This is just stupid fun, but it gets incredibly silly very quickly, and sometimes offers a surprisingly intimate look at the mundane lives of your friends. Get a group of people together, at least one of whom has basic household tasks to do (but isn’t in a hurry). The person doing the household task — say, cooking dinner — is pinned to the main panel of the video call, while another person on the conference narrates what that person is doing.
It can be in the style of a nature documentary (“And so the grad student savagely attacks her natural enemy, broccoli, with a cutting knife. Though brutal and savage, this is simply nature’s way of ensuring that broccoli does not use up excess shelf space in the fridge, and also of making soup.”) It can be in sportscaster form (“Look at that downward chopping motion! She’s going for the three-point play! That’s a daring move, everybody knows the farmers market carrots use a triangle offense and…she makes it! That’s gonna be a highlight clip of the day for sure!”) It can be in the form of a political panel discussion…it can be in the form of a TED talk…. Whatever the particular style, just narrate it. (And of course, some of these forms lead to multiple people getting to narrate collaboratively.)
Then, when the task is finished, it’s somebody else’s turn.
The Wheel of Zoom!!!
Okay, while the fundamental premise is Theme Camp 101, this one’s still gonna take a little explaining.
Five years ago I had an interactive art project — a small, person-sized one I could carry around with me — and I brought it out at an event. Long story short, a group of people gathered around my art project, and it became the center of absurd fun and playful mischief, and that group of people still gets together, in various permutations, whenever it can. But of course, now, how would we do that? We can’t physically get together, and my art experience really needed to be in person to make it work
We could have just hung out together, sure, but having something artful and playful at the center of our interactions had always helped create truly magical reunions. We didn’t want to lose that.
So for our first video reunion, one of our members jury-rigged the jankiest wheel of fate you’ll ever see. It was made of cardboard, an old pizza box, a skateboard, a zip tie … I dunno what the hell else he threw in there, but, you get the idea. It worked, but barely, and the ways in which it barely worked were hilarious.
The wheel had 12 open spots, and when there was a quorum of members on our video call, we began filling it in. The options, decided and approved by the group, were:
- Tell a story!
- Embarrass another member of the group (your choice who)
- Read a poem
- Ask a question (of one other group member, or of the whole group for everyone to answer)
- Describe your Signature Cocktail, tell us why, and share a story you associate with that drink.
- Two truths and one lie
- Put on a costume from your closet
- Weep and Strip (at least one piece of clothing must be removed as you cry)
- Share a fear
- Instill a fear (make someone else afraid of something).
Why these? Because they seemed like fun, and because some of them involve genuine unpredictability and risk. Far from knowing how these things would turn out, we honestly had no idea what would happen. At all.
We’ll come back to that in a moment.
It’s also relevant to note that the process of setting the options was a group decision, done together — that setting of expectations and consequences was part of the experience. (Okay, not if you showed up too late, but, hey — late has its own consequences.) Creating the container together is not generally something we associate with the “theme camp experience” — on playa we generally create something for people to come to, ready made. But in these, much smaller, circumstances, the act of coming together to create what you’re about to experience is itself the kind of experience we are trying to create.
(Say it with me: “Participation” and “Communal Effort” are design elements.)
Once the wheel was complete, we went around the video call, and everyone took a turn telling the person whose house it was in how they wanted it spun (to the right or to the left, fast or slow, what appendage to use…). Then they took their fate and ran with it.
We also realized that it’s possible to have someone spin for the entire group: whatever it lands on is a task we all undertake. This seemed to work best when used sparingly as part of a mix of individual spins and collective ones.
The distribution of the tasks was deliberately varied: some are oriented towards creating conversation (ask a question, confess!, share a fear); some are oriented towards activity (Put on a costume from your closet, sing!); and some are absurdity for absurdity’s sake (particularly “weep and strip” — we had no idea what that was or how that was going to go). And some are designed to trade on the knowledge and connection that members of this group have over time (embarrass another member of the group; instill a fear).
I think diversity of challenges is far more important in designing a “virtual theme camp” than it is in a theme camp on the playa. In Black Rock City, we have nothing but options. Theme camps often work best when they’re specialized — doing one thing (or style of thing) very well, and people can stay for as long as it speaks to them and then move on to something else.
But we don’t have that kind of virtual infrastructure (at least not yet), and it’s much harder to just wander out and discover something. So, the more a digital “theme camp” has only one thing on offer, the more it will risk people staying not because they’re authentically engaged but because they don’t think they have other options. Variety, keeping people on their toes, not knowing which kind of struggle they’re about to engage in, is a way of also keeping them authentically engaged.
The fact that many of these challenges were genuinely challenging also mattered, I think: we feel more connected to each other and to our own lives when we are able to rise to an occasion. Not everyone has to be challenged every time, but the experience of someone living up to a genuine challenge is a far better way to spend time, gives one a sense that we are really living, or at least still alive, in a way than just passing the time on video chat does not.
This is why, in theme camp design, it’s better to organize around some kind of interactive art experience than to only drink together. Chilling out is great, and we will always have that, it’s not going away. But an interactive art experience opens the possibility of more. And right now, in our time of isolation, we need more. So we must reach for it.
Top photo: Temple of Transition by International Arts Mega Crew, 2011 (Photo by Marley Windham-Herman)